The Soo Peng Hang Press heritage

Last Saturday morning, my phone rang and a glance at its screen showed that the caller was our hairdresser.  I answered with a bit of concern because it was rare to receive a call from the hairdresser!

Report published in the Sin Chew Daily last Saturday
Two sisters, Sau Ying and Sau Leng, took care of our hair since we were schoolkids and are still our family hairdressers. Speaking in Cantonese, Sau Ying went straight to the point.

She said her sister was reading the Sin Chew newspapers and showed the article to her. Curious about why I’m mentioned in a Chinese daily, they wanted to confirm if that was really me!

All anxiety left me when I realised that this report was from the press conference held with the Chinese media at Think City’s Johor Baru office yesterday. Sau Ying and her sister recognised me in the photo with the report about the Soo Peng Hang Press which caused quite a debate between them about me and the way my name was published!

In the Oriental Daily News last Saturday
A similar report was also published in the Oriental Daily News and the China Press newspapers on the same day. I’m not conversant in Mandarin, so I too wondered how my name was written in Chinese. Maybe it was loosely translated as Pei Kee Loh?*

To understand what is going on, let me take you back a few weeks to when Yap Leong of Eh He, told me about what he and his team was doing with the Soo Peng Hang Press.

I’m familiar with this old printing business in JB and I remember back in 2015, prior to the Johor Sultan’s coronation, Yap introduced me to Soo Kok Wah of the Soo family, who owns the business, to talk about his Coronation Memories.

Since then, Yap and his team had been working closely with the Soo brothers in an effort to preserve the wealth of heritage from the printing press for posterity.

I agreed that the Soo family heritage in the printing press is indeed an amazing Johor heritage and when Yap invited me to participate in their book project, I did not hesitate to say, “Yes!”

In the China Press newspapers last Saturday
When we met, Yap and his team gave me the book’s draft layout for reference. It would be a bi-lingual publication with me providing the English version of the Chinese text.

Yap explained their ambitious but worthwhile plans that starts with the documentation of the history of Soo Peng Hang Press – in a bi-lingual book – followed by the physical restoration of the printing press equipment and finally, setting up the printing press for display as a heritage institution.

One of the considerations was to remove the ancient equipment to another site for restoration work while the old shop building would be upgraded. And when the building was ready, to install the equipment to its original positions and present the printing press as a JB heritage destination.

The late Soo Peng Hang at his desk
[Check out the ancient telephone!] 
While Yap was speaking, I was turning the pages of the draft copy laid-out with photos of the ancient equipment in the printing press. As I looked at the photos, I felt a strange connection as my thoughts raced back to my dad.

Dad, who was brought up in the Boys’ Home of Elim Gospel Hall in Ipoh, told me that after his school-going years, his first job was as a typesetter with a printing press. He said Mr George Wilson, the missionary who ran the Home, did not like older boys to be idle so dad went out and found himself a job.

I can still remember the way my dad explained how he had to manually pick up the types or alphabets to compose the words and sentences in reverse to prepare the plate for printing.

Then Yap said that before Soo Peng Hang opened his business in JB, he also worked for a printer in Ipoh!

It’s quite an uncanny kind of connection but my dad probably worked for the same printer in Ipoh but at a different time. I figured that if Soo came back to JB and started his printing business in 1930 and my dad joined the printer after his school-going years, it would likely be after Soo had left Ipoh. But there is clearly a connection here!

Since July 2016, Yap and his team were doing research on the Soo Peng Hang Press and now they were ready to rope me in to help with the English writing.

From their earnest expressions, I could feel their passion for the project and when I shared with them my connection with the printing press through my dad, they were equally thrilled!

While Yap is their team leader, the book concept and Chinese text was by Low Shi Jian, who doubled up as photographer and videographer. Wong Kha Mern and See Ca Dai worked together on the book layout and design while the main task for Chong Yii Ern was to translate the Chinese text into English.

It was then, left to me to rewrite her raw version of English into proper English and prepare it for publication.

While Think City provided a fund for the book project, more funds are needed for the entire project. So last Friday, I joined the Eh He team for a press conference to share information for more awareness and to raise funds for the project.

Daniel Lim speaking at the press conference
Held at the office of Think City Johor Baru, the event was attended by Think City Programme Manager, Daniel Lim, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Art & Design, Southern University College, Dr Ding Yu Ming, two of the Soo brothers – Soo Kok Wah and Soo Kok Thai – the Eh He team and several members of the Chinese media.

While most JB locals would easily recognise the name, Soo Peng Hang Press, many may not know that after 76 years in business, the printing press ended its operations on 31 December 2006 because it could no longer compete with the advancing technologies in printing. The closure of the last moveable type printing press here means another Johor heritage was lost.

Yap gave a brief outline of the Soo Peng Hang Press as one of the earliest printing presses in JB which was named after its founder, Soo Peng Hang. Born in Guangdong, China, in 1896, Soo acquired his printing skills from training with master printers in China.

The Soo brothers, Soo Kok Thai [Left] and Soo Kok Wah
indicating who's who in their family photo
In 1924, at age 28, he left Hong Kong alone and ventured South to Singapore. Alone in Singapore, it was always a struggle for new arrivals or sin khek and it was difficult to find a job without a friend’s introduction or reference. Finally, with his savings almost depleted, Soo stayed alive only by drinking water.

After a very challenging time, he finally got a job with the Nanyang Siang Pau newspapers. He then worked for Guangming Printing Press in Ipoh before going back to Johor Baru to work in a printing press, located at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee.   

Later, when the owner of the printing press wanted to give up his business, he discussed it with Soo and decided to sell the printing press to him at the cost of 1000 Yuan.

In 1930, the Soo Peng Hang Press was one of the earliest printing presses in JB before World War II. The business was relocated three times, from No.9 Jalan Ibrahim (present-day OCBC Bank) to No. 4 Jalan Tangga Duke (present-day Foh Chong Building) and now located at No. 48 Jalan Wong Ah Fook.

Soo Peng Hang Press was not only the most important printing press in Johor Baru that printed many documents as a legacy to many local establishments, it also witnessed the development of Johor as a state and the advancement of modern printing techniques.

Lim said that the preservation of cultural identity was fundamental to the rejuvenation of a city’s image and the Soo family’s heritage is an integral part of JB’s culture and heritage.

Soo Kok Wah, 74, the seventh Soo brother, said that the JB Tiong Hua Association published an interview with him about their family’s printing press and as a result, representatives from the Beijing Museum contacted him to express their interest to visit the printing press here!

He, however, declined to accept any visitors as their former business premises was in a sad state of disrepair. But now with this project in view, the family’s heritage will be preserved – starting with a book – and followed by restoring the equipment. So he was able to tell the Beijing Museum representatives that a visit to their printing press in JB, may be possible in a few years’ time!

The original 1951 letter to Soo Peng
Hang Press signed by Malcolm MacDonald
In the early British colonial period, Soo Kok Wah said very few people printed calendars but Soo Peng Hang Press printed calendars every year and gave them away as gifts. One day in December 1951, they received a letter from a Malay man (probably a delivery person!) and one of the Soo bothers opened it. 

To their surprise, it was a letter from then British Commissioner General in Southeast Asia, Malcolm MacDonald, who expressed his appreciation for their calendar. It read: ‘Thank you for your charming calendar with its Christmas and New Year greetings.”

Soo Kok Wah carefully took out the original letter to proudly show me the typewritten Thank You note with residential address: Bukit Serene Johore Bahru, and the signature of the Commissioner General himself!

When Soo Kok Thai, 72, the eighth Soo brother, heard that my dad once worked as a typesetter, he told me that he worked at maintaining modern typesetting machines with the East Asiatic Company (EAC) for 20 years.

The media members got their answers and clarifications in a Question & Answer session and at the close of the event, they requested for a formal photo. And their reports were promptly published in the Southern section of Sin Chew Daily, Oriental Daily News and China Press newspapers, the next day.

For enquires and to support the publishing of the book on Soo Peng Hang Press and future restoration plans of the printing press, please send your email to: earthheartteam@gmail.com

* I'm relieved to learn from my Chinese-reading colleague that my name printed in the Chinese newspapers reads as, Luo Pei Chi, with an indication that it was written based on an English name. Whew!

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